In the past half century, as dozens of nations have overcome tyranny or conflict, many have tried to figure out how much to punish their past tormentors – or to forgive them, depending on their crimes, personal contrition, or civic usefulness.
Ukraine, with its democratic revolution now secured by two elections this year, is the latest country to face this moral predicament.
In October, it began to judge the past activities of as many as 1 million current or former government workers under a new law on “lustration” (Latin for “cleansing”). Hundreds of Ukrainians have already been fingered or dismissed, barred from public service for 10 years. Many were tied to the country’s Soviet-era security services or found to lead lifestyles far beyond their salaries.
Ukraine is in a rush to break an endemic culture of corruption and any lingering authoritarianism. While the urgency is understandable, its leaders must also learn from the mistakes of other countries that failed to find the right balance between retribution against previous rulers and the need for national reconciliation.
Ukraine’s lustration law builds on the mixed experience of similar efforts in other Eastern European nations after their revolutions. It will no doubt face legal challenges for not allowing a presumption of innocence or being too sweeping toward entire sets of civic servants.
But more than facing legal problems, the law should not lead to a further rupture of a country still facing rebellion in its Russian-speaking east and one that lies at the heart of big-power tensions between Russia and the West.
Iraq stands out as an example of how wholesale justice without individual leniency can sow the seeds for future conflict. After the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the entire ruling Baath Party was outlawed from serving in either public service or the Iraqi security forces. This created resentment among the country’s once-dominant Sunni minority and helped create conditions for the rise of the Islamic State militant group.
A positive example lies in South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, which granted amnesty to those who told the truth about their misdeeds during the apartheid era.
Ukrainians are correct to deter corruption and dictatorship through punishment and accountability. But justice will not be served without some mercy for individuals who truly repent with full disclosure. The best justice entails a healing of relationships that can lead to a restoration of a peaceful society.
A law for “cleansing” must be aimed at an individual’s thinking as well as the individual’s past deeds. Ukraine must be rebuilt with all its citizens.